A British sailor has recounted the terror of being surrounded by killer whales who attacked a boat she was delivering from the Azores to Gibraltar.
Speaking on This Morning, April Boyes, 31, told Alison Hammond and Dermot O’Leary about a scary encounter with orcas, who continuously rammed into the vessel for over an hour off the coast of Spain.
The journey is roughly 1,100 nautical miles – but it was smooth-sailing until the last ten, she explained.
Describing the encounter, she admitted the crew ‘first thought they might’ve been dolphins’.
However, panic seeped in when they realised they were a lot bigger – and as the orcas started to approach the boat, the team became ‘a little bit nervous’.
Speaking on This Morning, April Boyes, 31, told Alison Hammond and Dermot O’Leary about a scary encounter with the creatures
April described the orcas’ movements as ‘a bit of a headbutt’.
‘They were kind of flipping their tails about, whether that’s a game to them or learned behaviour,’ she said.
The sailor – who has been in the industry for five years – recalled how the situation escalated when water reached the Engine Room.
‘We called the emergency services,’ she told Alison and Dermot.
‘We first made a Pan-pan call, which means “breakdown” in French when the water was just in the back and then that escalated to a mayday call at which point I was kind of going back into the boat to check other areas.
‘And then we saw water in the engine room, which wasn’t a very good sign.’
The tireless crew then took turns bailing the water out before eventually, a helicopter with an industrial pump arrived.
Everything was prepared ‘for the worst’ in terms of safety measures as they waited for emergency services, but April said they were ‘hoping it wouldn’t come to that’.
The journey is roughly 1,100 nautical miles – but it was smooth-sailing until the last ten, she explained
She also told presenters that while she’d heard about the increase in orca attacks, the danger wasn’t on her mind at all
‘We also have pumps that could get rid of a lot of the water,’ she added.
‘So while we were waiting for emergency services to arrive we took remedial action straight away… but a boat did sink the week before so that was in the back of our minds.’
‘I really want to push the point that, we don’t know they’re being aggressive,’ April added.
‘It could be play to them, we don’t really know the reason why they’re doing [it].’
She also told presenters that while she’d heard about the increase in orca attacks, the danger wasn’t on her mind at all.
‘I’d delivered a boat from the Atlantic, the Caribbean the week before – no problems,’ she explained.
Zoologist and wildlife expert Billy Heaney also told viewers that not enough is yet understood about the new phenomenon
‘And there’s a huge amount of traffic in there – you’re talking hundreds of boats – so you just don’t assume its going to happen to you.
‘I wasn’t worried about it.’
She called for more research into the creatures’ habits, and said they could inform helpful preventative measures.
Zoologist and wildlife expert Billy Heaney also told viewers that not enough is yet understood about the new phenomenon, which is at the moment typically linked to one orca named White Gladis.
‘So orcas, a bit like elephants, are matriarchal so it’s the ladies that rule the roost,’ he explained.
‘And what scientists from Portugal think has happened is she’s come into a critical amount of agony at some point whether this was a collision with a boat… and something bad has happened which has flicked a switch.
‘Her behaviour has now associated boats with something bad or she could be playing with them.
‘And the younger calves in her pod have learned this by imitation so scientists are thinking that she’s not actively teaching other members of her pod or the wider community of orcas in the Iberian Gulf about this behavior.’
Billy also said that the behaviour is contained to the Iberian Gulf population – which is ‘only known to be 39 individuals’.
And while orca pods are known to specialise in distinct behaviours – one may favour shark hunting while another is incredible at catching sea lions – this one is unique.
‘It’s a really interesting one because something like this has never really happened before,’ he said.
‘There has never been a recorded fatality of an orca killing someone in the wild before, but what we have seen in recent years is that these boat attacks are becoming more and more frequent.’
Why do orcas attack boats?
A study in Marine Mammal Science last year concluded that the attacks on small boats follow the same pattern: orcas join in approaching from the stern, disabling the boat by hitting the rudder, and then losing interest.
Experts believe orcas may be teaching others how to pursue and attack boats, having observed a string of ‘coordinated’ strikes in Europe.
Some even think that one orca learned how to stop the boats, and then went on to teach others how to do it.
The sociable, intelligent animals have been responsible for more than 500 interactions with vessels since 2020, with at least three sinking.
It does not appear to be a very useful behaviour, and not clearly helping their survival chances.
In fact, Alfredo Lopez, an orca researcher at the Atlantic Orca Working Group, says the critically endangered whales ‘run a great risk of getting hurt’ in attacks.
Dr Luke Rendell, who researches learning and behaviour among marine mammals at the University of St Andrews, agreed the behaviour does not seem to be an evolved adaptation.
Instead, he pointed to ‘short-lived fads’, like carrying dead salmon on their heads – a sign of sociability, but not a desperate bid to survive.
The answer to the boat attacks might lie with the dreaded White Gladis, an orca with a personal vendetta against boats or people.
Lopez said ‘that traumatised orca is the one that started this behaviour of physical contact’.
‘The orcas are doing this on purpose,’ he told livescience.com. ‘Of course, we don’t know the origin or the motivation, but defensive behavior based on trauma, as the origin of all this, gains more strength for us every day.’
Like humans, the orcas have ‘sophisticated learning abilities’ that allow them to digest the behaviour of others and replicate it themselves, a study in peer reviewed journal Biological Conservation indicates.